Every interaction with a horse is a collaboration. The concept of collaboration enables organisations to work together too. With a horse, sometimes, it takes me a little longer than I want it to – but then I remember it’s not about me. By working with a horse, I have to be willing to be uncomfortable. I have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Ultimately, that’s a small price to pay for the result of communicating and working with the horse. I’ve learned that a great relationship doesn’t need promises, terms or conditions; just two parties who can trust and understand each other. This article is intended to give leaders contemplating a collaborative undertaking, or those involved in a collaborative undertaking (where in the private or public sector), a few things to ponder. Think about the horse analogy I opened with when you read the seven factors I offer as contributors to successful collaboration way down below.
For organisations, collaboration enables them to work together with other organisations and tackle or address ‘wicked problems’. Recent research (by Head & Alford, 2015 – p712) defines wicked problems as those with characteristics that are, “complex, unpredictable, open-ended, or intractable”. Western democratic governments, such as New Zealand’s, have evolved to encourage the idea of “collaborative governance” to address wicked problems in their societies. The evolution toward collaborative governance was enabled by neo-liberal principals driving public sector reform. In New Zealand, collaborative governance is referred to as a, ‘whole-of-government approach’. Unfortunately, it has also been observed (in a 2001 Ministerial Advisory Group report – p69) that ‘whole-of-government’ is often an elastic term. It has too much breadth to provide clarity when faced with attempting holistic treatment of issues by multiple organisations. An interesting study, the title of which begins, “The Emperors New Clothes…” (by Johansen 2014) provides fascinating reading in a well-researched thesis if you want to explore a ‘whole-of’government’ conundrum a little further. However, my point is that regardless of whether collaboration takes place in the private or public sector, the core principle is that organisations work collaboratively to address wicked problems. At Figure 1. (below) is an image to illustrate an example of a generic collaborative venture:
In the example illustrated (above), the experience of Organisation “A” usually affiliates with their own context rather than the subject of Collaborative Undertaking “X”. The challenge then is how to bring about the required paradigm shift – and the context in which Collaborative Undertaking “X” takes place is often pivotal to that paradigm shift occurring. It has to be understood that Organisation “A” may have to stop doing something it does now, in order to contribute to Collaborative Undertaking “X”…and that’s just where part of the fun begins!
Power and Authority
For collaboration to work, however, it’s been argued (on p34-p35 of work by O’Flynn citing Emmerson et al) that ‘power’ is a critical resource! Power enables the ‘collaborative group’ to address and manage an issue in public. Under these circumstances, the term to describe organisations and their people engaged in a collaborative undertaking (with the appropriate power) is that they have ‘discursive legitimacy’ to act. Without power, there’s no discursive legitimacy to act. Without discursive legitimacy, there are no teeth to effect the collaborative undertaking.
Both ‘power’ and ‘authority’ affect construction of roles and identities for everyone involved in the collaborative undertaking – from senior executives, to managers, to team leaders. Power and authority also affect the degree of obligation the contributors to the collaborative action ultimately have. We see this, for example, in language use in policy documentation associated with a collaborative undertaking. The use of modal auxiliary verbs such as, ‘must’ or, ‘shall’ indicate authority and status in the author. On the other hand, using, ‘may’ or, ‘could’ implies that something is open to negotiation or translation (Derewianka explains this nicely on p66 if you want to read her grammar companion). In practical terms, it means those lower in the hierarchy of an organisation have no power to oblige higher level decision makers (CEs and senior officials or managers) to the cause of action. In a collaborative venture, power should be shared between groups. One of the things that power enables, for example, is the joint development of policies. O’Flynn refers to ‘authority’ as, ‘an acknowledged right to exercise judgement, to act, or to make decisions.’
An absence of discursive authority for the producers of the collaborative undertaking reduces the power of the decision makers in Organisations “A,”, “B” and “C”. It particularly reduces the power of the decision makers in each organisation to actually make decisions and really collaborate with each other. Under these circumstances, decision makers for Organisations “A,”, “B” and “C” are left to interpret their own meaning of what it means to collaborate – usually within the confines of a governance text. The governance text is meant to articulate ‘the rules’ governing the collaboration between Organisations “A,”, “B” and “C”. If the governance text doesn’t explain ‘how’ the collaborative undertaking operates, or what the decision makers and managers in Organisations “A,”, “B” and “C” need to do in order to ensure the long-term success of the collaborative undertaking, then the venture will fail.
Resource sharing is also critical to success in collaboration. Let’s assume Organisation “A” exists to do a particular “thing”. As an organisation, it has an output, or a number of outputs, which contribute in turn to its own outcome – against which its success or failure is measured and it is held accountable for. The same is true of Organisations “B” and “C”. Let’s also assume that the collaborative venture (undertaken voluntarily, or undertaken because the organisations are directed to do so) would involve each organisation contributing resources to Collaborative Undertaking “X”. For example, one organisation might contribute a particular piece or set of equipment in which it has expertise to operate. Another organisation might contribute office space. All the organisations might contribute people.
The degree of success the collaborative venture has is the result or the outcome (as illustrated above in Figure 1.). The standard of the outcome sought might be determined before the venture is embarked upon, so that there is something to measure. However, the outcome might also be something that emerges as a result of the venture. The outcome, ultimately, is what ‘winning’ would look like; it’s what success of the venture would be at a point in the future.
Now, what if Organisation “A” determines that it needs the resources it is contributing to the collaborative venture, in order to undertake an activity which contributes to the achievement of its own outcome, or to one of its outputs (which contribute to the achievement of its own outcome)? The short answer is that the risk of the collaborative venture failing just increased. If Organisation “A” doesn’t have to contribute to the collaborative undertaking as an output against which it is measured, then why would Organisation “A” (particularly the CE and senior management) worry too much about the success or failure of the collaborative undertaking?
Let’s assume, as one way of structuring this collaborative venture, that Organisation “C” is accountable (to whomever – a government minister, or a board perhaps) for the outcome of Collaborative Undertaking “X”. What happens if Organisations “A” and “B” both chose to withdraw resources for the collaborative venture to undertake activities for which they are obliged to undertake as part of their own primary roles? Organisation “C” isn’t necessarily in a position to compel Organisations “A” and “B” to contribute.
Governance and accountability
In New Zealand, there would seem to be a dichotomy for a ‘whole-of-government’ undertaking between the adopted governance model and accountability. The appropriations process – enabling a Minister to purchase their respective public sector organisations services to meet government political objectives – is often a constraining factor of proper collaboration, in spite of reform intended to mitigate this issue (Newbury and Pallet’s 2010 study provides an interesting set of observations). Perhaps, a collaborative undertaking would work best using a Multi-Class Appropriation (scroll to the bottom of the page the link takes you to)? There is a guide to government appropriations which helps in part. The point is: current performance accountability of Organisations “A”, “B” and “C”, assuming they were government organisations, can actually stifle collaboration. In a private sector undertaking, this would not necessarily be the case – but it needs to be thought about so that collaboration isn’t similarly stifled.
Food for thought
Let’s start with this question, “Why might collaboration be essential to achieve an outcome?” The answer might lie in one of the following (the list isn’t exhaustive!):
- Individual organisations have resource constraints that are mitigated by collaboration – for example, a farm needs hay cutting. The farm can’t afford the tractors and machinery required to cut hay. A hay contractor, on the other hand, has the necessary tractors and machinery, but doesn’t have a farm on which to operate them to produce hay….
- An organisation is limited to operate the area in which it has authority to act – See Figure 2. (below). By collaborating, a full spectrum of effects is available by tapping into the authorities, capabilities, perspectives and thoughts across several organisations.
- Collaboration provides better organisational perspective, agility and opportunity for innovation – to tackle wicked problems, this is preferable to insular thinking brought about by an organisation acting in its own context and undertaking siloed action. It prevents duplication of effort, among other things. Expertise can be tapped into that facilitates better outcomes together, than individual organisations could achieve alone.
- There is no redundancy in the event of a stream of effort, or a line of activities being unavailable – for example: Key is delivery of a service or item. Organisation “A” provides aerial delivery platforms, but foul weather prevents flying. Organisation “B” provides boats and Organisation “C” has trucks.
Seven factors for success in any collaborative undertaking (public sector, or private sector)
Again, this list isn’t exhaustive. However, these are seven factors I consider critical to creating conditions for the success of a collaborative undertaking, or venture:
- Those either establishing, or undertaking, the venture must clearly convey their belief about collaboration. Why is it better to collaborate? Why are Organisations “A”, “B” and “C” involved in the collaboration? Collaboration is a good thing, but you can’t be half-in!
- The power to address and manage issues associated with the collaborative undertaking must enabled – i.e. the power and authority to direct how to collaborate. No power and authority to act = no teeth for the collaborative undertaking = failure to achieve the outcome to the standard required.
- The collaborative undertaking needs the authority to exercise judgement, to act, or make decisions in order to achieve the required outcome. This authority must be vested in those engaged in the collaborative undertaking – especially in the overall ‘manager’ of the collaborative venture. It needs a grown-up to make a decision under circumstances when the participants don’t play nicely together!
- Resources must be shared. There must be an arbiter to make a decision when there is conflict or tension between the priorities of contributing organisations and the priorities of the collective venture. Organisation “B”doesn’t get to decide that its own output is a higher priority for it as an organisation, than the collaborative venture’s priority is for Organisation “B”. If you are going to collaborate, share the resources like a grown-up.
- Any governance text must be easy to interpret, without ‘spin’ to suit an individual contributing organisation. Governance texts must clearly articulate the ‘rules’ for collaborating. The texts must identify roles across a range of decision-making positions in any hierarchical situation, from CEs to team leaders. Be clear about who does what, with whom, and why. Afford managers the autonomy to interpret pragmatically ‘how’ to collaborate with their peers. Don’t be prescriptive about the way managers construct collaboration. Be clear on the outcome sought from the collaboration, the purpose of the collaboration and let the people get on with it. If a six-year old or a folder retriever can understand what you are saying, then you are on the mark!
- If the CEs from Organisations “A”, “B” and “C” sign up to contribute to the collaborative venture, then they must be held accountable for being obligated to the ’cause of action’ associated with the collaborative undertaking. So too are the senior officials, managers and team leaders involved. Someone senior to, or independent from Organisations “A”, “B” and “C” must be accountable for the overall outcome of the collaborative venture. In a private venture, a legally binding agreement detailing this would work just as well. There must be a way to enforce the obligation to the ’cause of action’ that removes the tension between agency and structure. Friday afternoon cage-fighting would be another way to remove the tension, but it can get messy from a health and safety perspective!
- If a collaborative undertaking is considered essential to meet an outcome then innovation and risk-taking must not be stamped out. Don’t put obstacles in the way that constrain collaboration. Actively commit to removing obstacles once encountered (there will inevitably be some!). Think about how to deal with the situation where Organisations “A”, “B and “C” have no experience in how to collaborate. Inexperience can lead to a confusing narrative and then not enable multi-organisational practices.
The good news is, organisations can learn how to collaborate, or get help to do so, but you must have the will to collaborate in the first place. Collaboration is ultimately about being better together than in isolation. I’ll conclude this piece with horse analogies…..because I’m The Naked Horseman after all! The legendary (and late) horseman Tom Dorrance once said, “sometimes a horse will put up the greatest resistance just before he comes though.” He called it ‘the darkest hour before dawn’. His point was that at the moment of greatest resistance, people usually give up – or lose their temper. If you just keep being patient, experience has taught me that the horse is about to come around. My experience under those circumstances comes from exercising bad judgement in the past; now I know that when I’ve mis-judged, I’ve learned what not to do next time and I’ve developed better judgement. Collaborative ventures are a bit like that.
I’ll give the final word on undertaking a collaborative venture to C.S. Lewis…..
“It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird; it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”